The Gulf Coast League Cardinals (11-12) extended their winning streak to seven with a 2-1 win on Monday, but then lost four of the next five to finish 2-4 for the week. They lost two of three from both the Mets and Nationals. In a tightly bunched division, that dropped the Cardinals into a tie with the Marlins for third place, but only 1-1/2 games behind the division-leading Mets.
Though the Cardinals were outhit by their opponents 49-44 and outscored 31-22, the Cardinals still lead the GCL in runs scored (120), hits (222), doubles (43), triples (11), team batting average (.275) and OPS (.725). They are tied for first in on-base percentage (.343) with one of the Yankees’ GCL teams, and tied with the other Yankees’ team for first in slugging (.386). The Cardinals have the third-lowest strikeout total (148) and have improved in drawing walks (73), moving up to ninth in the league from 13th only two weeks ago.
The Cardinals pitching staff has not proved to be as strong yet, though we are seeing some improvement. The team ERA for the week was 4.44, only slightly better than their cumulative 4.49 ERA, which is tied for 14th in the 16-team league.
Sandy Alcantara posted another strong starting, allowing five hits and no walks over 5 2/3 innings in a 1-0 loss. Second-round pick Jake Woodford and eighth-rounder Ian Oxnevad each had a scoreless outing in their weekly appearances. In his third outing, Woodford went three innings, allowing a hit and a walk while whiffing three in three innings. The lefty Oxnevad went two innings in his second pro outing, also allowing a hit and a walk.
The pitching star of the week, however, was 20-year-old Venezuelan left-hander David Oca, who earned both of the team’s wins. On Monday, Oca pitched the last five innings of a 2-1 win over the Mets. He returned on Saturday to throw the team’s first complete game of the season, and only the third so far in the GCL, in a 6-3 win shortened to seven innings because it was preceded by the completion of Friday’s suspended game.
Oca, who signed in 2013 and pitched mostly as a starter for 2-1/2 seasons in the Dominican Summer League, stands barely 5-foot-10 and his fastball is not blazing, but he has a plus curveball and seems to have a pitching IQ beyond his age.
In his 12 innings this past week, Oca allowed two earned runs on nine hits and a walk while fanning 10.
Spotlight on Coach Cale Johnson
The Rookie-level GCL is the first professional experience for many newly signed players from the U.S. and Canada, and often the debut on U.S. soil for many Caribbean-born players. It’s also the starting point for the pro careers of many umpires and coaches, including the GCL Cardinals first-year pitching coach Cale Johnson.
Now 27, Johnson spent three seasons pitching in the Cardinals organization after being the organization’s 41st-round pick in 2009, with Trevor Rosenthal, Keith Butler and Kleininger Teran among his teammates.
Teran, the GCL squad’s hitting coach in 2014 and soon-to-be 26-year-old Venezuela native, is with the big-league club this season as the extra catcher in the bullpen, having switched roles with Roberto Espinoza.
Johnson said that after pitching in the Midwest League in 2011, the Cardinals told him they wouldn’t have a roster spot for him the following year. So he returned home to Greeneville, Illinois, outside St. Louis, and his wife, Jessica, whom he had married in 2010. They now have a 10-month-old son, Maclin.
Johnson worked for a while in the finance industry, using the bachelor’s degrees in economics and business management he had earned at McKendree University in suburban St. Louis.
“But I found I couldn’t sit at a desk all day, so I started giving pitching lessons in Highland, Illinois,” Johnson said.
He said he received a call in November from Cardinals minor-league pitching coordinator Tim Leveque, who was the pitching coach at Quad Cities the season Johnson was there.
“He asked if I was interested in interviewing for an opening,” Johnson said. “Coaching had always been in the back of my mind,” Johnson said.
Johnson can talk to his young charges about his experience in the GCL, but also tell them about how Rosenthal went from throwing a 90-92 mph fastball in the GCL to the triple-digit heater that got him to the majors.
“He (Rosenthal) put in a lot of hard work, and got bigger and stronger, and developed better mechanics,” Johnson said.
Perhaps because of the success of Tony La Russa and others as coaches and managers, the Cardinals are among the forerunners of a growing trend in baseball to disdain retired star players in favor of hiring former players with lesser talent as coaches, especially in the minors. The theory being that those with less natural talent had to amass more knowledge to achieve whatever success they had and could translate that better to younger prospects.
Johnson said he agrees with that.
“I did everything I could and worked as hard as I could to get as far as I could,” he said. “I learned from other coaches about developing an effective communication style with each player on a one-on-one basis.”
Johnson said he embraces the Cardinals’ philosophy of “identifying their strengths and help them bring out their strengths, so you can bring out the best in each guy.”
In the GCL, however, the approach is mostly to wait and see what adjustments the youngsters make on their own first.
“It’s only fair to them to give them an opportunity to show what they can do before we start tweaking them,” Johnson said.
Coming and going
It was a slow week for player movement.
New signees Paul Salazar, the Cardinals’ 11th-round pick, a high schooler from the Houston area, and non-drafted free agent Champ Rowland joined the team on Monday. Rowland, 23, hit a bloop single in his first pro at-bat but went hitless his next six times up. On defense at shortstop, though, he made several excellent plays, and was promoted to State College at the end of the week as an injury backfill. The pro debut of Salazar, who turned 18 earlier this month, didn’t go quite as well. He allowed three runs on two walks and a hit while getting two outs in relief Saturday in the completion of the suspended game.
Alex Reyes, on a rehab assignment from Palm Beach, pitched three solid innings in his one appearance with a fastball that sat in the high 90s and touched 100 once.
Stephen Zavala returned after sitting on Palm Beach’s bench for two days as the backup catcher.
Bladimil Franco collected 11 hits during the week, one-fourth of the team’s total, plus a walk and three RBI. That pushed Franco’s batting average to .392, third in the GCL and taking over the team lead from Luis Bandes, who finished the week at .375, fourth in the league. Both are also in the league’s top 10 in on-base percentage and OPS.
Though Nick Plummer’s batting average remains below the Mendoza Line at .197, the first-round pick who will turn 19 on July 31, had four hits, four walks and four RBI during the week. Plummer also was benched briefly, missing the second half of Wednesday’s game and all of Thursday’s, after he failed to run to first on a ground ball down the first-base line that he apparently thought was going foul. Plummer returned to the lineup Friday. He had two hits and scored three runs in the last two games of the week, including a triple that ignited the decisive four-run rally in the sixth inning of Oca’s complete-game win Saturday.
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